The curious case of Deion Sanders
He's found his calling as a mentor. But critics wonder if he's too good to be true.
This story appears in the March 22 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Early morning, around 6:30, is the most peaceful time of Deion Sanders' day. As light warms his 142-acre estate in Prosper, Texas, just north of Dallas, Sanders lies in bed with his cell phone open, preparing a text message. This text is important. Since Sanders retired from the NFL in 2006, he has focused on his unofficial, often controversial career as a mentor to hundreds of football players, ranging from Pee Wees to pros. The guidance begins each morning with a text -- not always novel, not always in decipherable English, but as regular as the sunrise -- to about 100 players. Many of their names are stored in a group called Kids.
You're familiar with a lot of these men. "Ray" is Ray Lewis; "7" is Michael Vick. You've become more familiar with others simply because they popped up on Sanders' radar: "Noel" is Noel Devine, the West Virginia running back whom Sanders once tried to adopt; "Dez" is Dez Bryant, the former Oklahoma State receiver who was suspended for most of this past season after lying to the NCAA about his interactions with Sanders; "Crab" is Michael Crabtree, the 49ers receiver who, with Sanders not objecting, staged the longest contract dispute in seven years (71 days) after the 2009 draft. And then there are the names you don't know, such as the preteen players from eight youth football teams that Sanders coaches. No matter, they are all kids to Sanders.
What values should today's text impart? Sanders has a self-help book cracked open next to his bed, and one passage has him thinking. He taps feverishly, gives the message a once-over, and it's off: "2day let's take da high road all day. we will LOVE, LAUGH, n LIVE! No drama no gossip no pity party no nothing! Look 4 da best n every1 n everything 2day."
In his world, where Sanders is constantly painted as a shameless opportunist, these texts might be his purest act of the day.
Sanders says two hours after sending his morning text: "I give unconditionally. I'm not looking for nothing back." So do we believe him? It would be much easier if the answer were yes. But it's not that simple, for him or for us -- not after the decade we just endured, when so much of what we thought was real in sports turned out to be bogus. And when your nickname is Prime Time, the skeptics are always ready to pounce. Some believe Sanders mentors for ego. Or money, as the NCAA suspected with Bryant, who ultimately signed with Sanders' friend and former agent, Eugene Parker. Or power, say NFL insiders who finger Sanders as the driving force behind Crabtree's contract dispute.
Sanders has a strong denial for every accusation. And the NCAA inquiry concluded that he did nothing wrong with Bryant. In a different era, maybe those details would have quelled the cynicism. But not today. In this jaded moment, Sanders can have his name cleared and spend all day every day trying to help people, yet still attract suspicion. Is his advice really messing up lives -- or has the sports world lost the ability to take anything at face value?
His phone rings. It's not an NFL star this time; it's a single mom. Sanders, who is driving on Dallas' North Side, listens as the woman explains that her 10-year-old son, Kirby, a linebacker/tight end on one of Sanders' youth teams, has lost two winter jackets that she could barely afford. Worse, when pressed about what happened, Kirby just shrugged. Maybe Sanders could talk to him?
"Mama, I'm on my way," he says as he hangs a hard right and heads for Kirby's school. This is Neon Deion at 42: dressed in white warm-ups and driving a soccer-mom van. His eyes are wrinkled, posture slightly bent, whiskers white as snowy branches. He has always been so slick, so primped, so loud -- history's greatest cover cornerback and two-sport star! -- even after becoming a born-again Christian. In his current day job, as an analyst for NFL Network, he still moonlights as Prime Time. But when working for his passion, he's Deion, or Mr. Sanders, or simply Coach.
SANDERS AND HIS COACHES TAKE A TOUGH-LOVE APPROACH WITH THEIR PEE WEE PLAYERS. YOU CRY, YOU RIDE THE BENCH.
After arriving at the school, Sanders is led to the classroom by a receptionist. Kirby, in the front row, sees his coach and knows he's in trouble. He follows Deion to the hallway, then stares at the ground as his lower lip quivers and tears spill down his cheeks. Sanders sits on a bench, props the boy on his lap and leans into his ear, whispering for a few seconds. They hug, and Kirby goes back to class. A few minutes later, after posing for pictures with the receptionists, Sanders calls Kirby's mom: "Hey, Mama, how you doing? Kirby was scared to death. And don't worry, I'll buy him a new jacket."
He hangs up. "That's why I do this," he says with conviction. "Knowing that boy is going to apologize to his mother. And that his mama is going to call me and say, 'Baby, I don't know what you said, but it worked.' That's what it is."
Of all the mentoring that Sanders does, youth football is where his impact resonates most. Six days a week, buses that he pays for transport 400 boys, ages 5 to 12, from the rough, poor South Dallas area to practices and games in the more upscale West Dallas. About 75% of the kids come from single-parent households. Sanders provides the equipment and uniforms. But to play, the kids must follow rules: all A's and B's on their report cards and no trouble outside the classroom. That also goes for Sanders' sons, 10-year-old Shilo and 8-year-old Shedeur, who both play quarterback.
And yet when kids who've grown up without any advantages suddenly have some, eyebrows arch. Sanders isn't scrutinized just by the NCAA and NFL, but also by coaches and parents from other teams. On a fall afternoon, the father of one opponent paces the field, then yells, "This is youth versus professional here! These guys have a payroll!"
Anthony Parker, who runs the league, approaches like a bouncer. "What's going on?"
"Listen," the man says, "when my kids get older, I'm going to tell 'em about what kind of guy Deion is."
"What do you mean?"
"Don't worry about it," the man says, walking away. "Don't worry about it."
"My influence is real," says Sanders, driving his van on a Dallas freeway after setting Kirby straight. "So you've gotta be careful. It can be a positive or negative influence. You gotta never compromise yourself. Can't have no hidden agendas."
Sports, of course, brims with hidden agendas. Players, coaches, owners, agents, journalists, trainers, mentors, even fans -- everyone has something to gain. And few in sports have gained as much as Deion Sanders. He made millions promoting his Prime Time persona, playing pro baseball and football, recording a rap CD, shilling for Pizza Hut, Pepsi and many others. But he has admitted that the act left him feeling alone and suicidal. And while finding God helped him, he says it might have been easier if he'd found a mentor. Without anyone to guide him, Sanders wasted money and energy on partying, women and, most of all, living up to his image. "If someone I respected had been there to check me," he says, "I'd be $10 million richer and would have saved a lot of time."
In 2001, a few months into his first retirement (he would come back to play in 2004-05), Sanders started an off-season workout program called Prime U, with stars like Chad Ochocinco, Champ Bailey and DeAngelo Hall in attendance. For a week, Sanders advised players on topics ranging from defending the West Coast offense to handling family requests for money. When camp broke, he called his students every few days to check in, and soon a network was born. Today, the group numbers roughly 100 NFL players, a lot of them on the Kids list. But his flock is spread among different text groups. "My ministry," Sanders says.
When he boasts about his reach, he sounds like a gratified parent -- or a cult leader, depending on your perspective. But his ministry isn't based on religion; not every member is born-again. Nor is it exclusive; many members aren't superstars. And it's seemingly not a business; Sanders says he advises for free. "He really just wants to help people," says Patriots cornerback Darius Butler, a Deion disciple.
How does one join that club? Sanders meets some of his guys while working for NFL Network, but he actively seeks out other players. When he saw that Titans running back LenDale White was moping about playing time, Sanders tracked him down and told him, "Keep your head up." Other guys ask in. Raiders defensive back Chris Johnson cornered Sanders at a party, and within weeks he was in a film room talking shop with the future Hall of Famer.
Sanders loves this -- being back in the game, mattering. He loves that Vikings running back Adrian Peterson calls after press conferences to ask if he looked professional enough. Or that Browns cornerback Eric Wright dials him up to vent when a loss boils over into his family life. Sanders answers the phone at any hour. One night in 2008, Cowboys cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, fresh off his yearlong suspension, was involved in an altercation at a hotel. An enraged Jones called Sanders, who went to his house and stayed until 7 a.m., when Pacman finally fell asleep. The Cowboys later released Jones, who hasn't played since, but he's proud that in two years on Sanders' speed dial he has had no other run-ins. "He's the first person who I felt really cared about me," Jones says. "He's a great teacher."
If this sort of guidance seems like something sports could use, well, not everybody agrees. Sanders has been called a con man in the media and warned by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to be careful about conflicts of interest. And while he was in the midst of mentoring Devine in Dallas, this 911 call was placed in Florida: "I am calling for the possible abduction/kidnapping of one Noel Devine. The person who is kidnapping -- and this is not a joke -- is Deion Sanders, the one and only, famous Deion Sanders."
It's a wet, late-October day, and Sanders is coaching his teams through their final practice before tomorrow's games. He has moved them from soggy fields to a parking lot ("Deion's wearing white shoes and doesn't want to get them dirty," says an assistant coach), and now he's roaming, giving pointers. Sanders' coaching staff is loaded with former Cowboys, including Emmitt Smith, Omar Stoutmire and George Hegamin. They grade game tape of the kids, and they're tough. While there's no cussing, there is plenty of yelling. Cry, they warn the youngsters, and ride the bench. It's militaristic, but Sanders believes it's exactly what these players need -- a hard-ass with heart. And their parents agree. Moms and dads on Sanders' side of the field see a legend who's dedicated to helping their kids, who's willing to invite a dozen of his players to live with him and his family every summer. (Deion and his wife, Pilar, also have a 6-year-old daughter, Shelomi, and there are two other kids from Sanders' first marriage: Deiondra, 19, and Deion Jr., 16.)
ADOPTION? KIDNAPPING? SANDERS AND DEVINE HAVE RAISED PLENTY OF EYEBROWS, BUT THE PLAYER'S COACH SAYS DEION HAS BEEN "NOTHING BUT POSITIVE."
But others have a different view. Devine was a rising sophomore at North Fort Myers (Fla.) High in 2004 when a school official asked Sanders, an alum, to mentor the star running back. After losing both of his parents to AIDS, Devine first lived with his grandmother, then moved in with Liz and Robert Harlow, the parents of one of his best friends, and he was struggling in school. So Sanders flew the teen to Texas for a week, and not long afterward he asked Devine's grandmother for permission to legally adopt Noel -- a request that raised red flags for Liz Harlow. She remembered Sanders from decades before, when their fathers had worked together at a Fort Myers lumber company. Liz will never forget Deion as a teenager, proclaiming future greatness. She recalled Deion always being about Deion. Now, suddenly, here he was again, and it all felt calculated and self- serving. Liz thought Deion swooped in so he could one day brag "that it was because of him that Noel changed," she says.
Meanwhile, Devine wasn't quite sure what to make of the situation. After moving to Dallas in July, he started having second thoughts. Working out with Sanders was all good, but living together proved more of a challenge. Sanders says Devine (who declined to be interviewed for this story) chafed at rules, such as no rap music. "He didn't have any structure," Sanders says, "and he wasn't used to it."
Devine told friends he wanted to go back to Florida, prompting a concerned father to make the 911 call. When the police phoned Sanders, he was at dinner with Devine, who said he was there by choice. And when Sanders went to training camp in Baltimore, Devine joined him for a week. But shortly after Devine returned to Dallas, he drove Sanders' Escalade to the airport one day, left the keys inside and flew home to Florida. Sanders was angry. He canceled the adoption plans and repeatedly called Devine, who didn't answer. What happened next depends on the source. According to Harlow, a family friend eventually picked up Devine's phone, and the friend claims Sanders told him, "Does Noel know who I am? He's never going to play football in the state of Florida again!" But Sanders insists he said no such thing. "That's stupid," he says. "That's not my character."
Sanders and Devine eventually reconciled, and Devine has become a star Big East running back. When he sought Sanders' advice about turning pro after his junior season, Prime Time told him to stay in school. And Mountaineers coach Bill Stewart says Sanders has been "nothing but positive."
That didn't stop NCAA investigators from calling Sanders last year to ask questions about his time with Devine. They suspected ... well, it's hard to know what. The questions were benign in tone, no wrongdoing was found, and no one at the NCAA is talking. So we're left with a bunch of whispers. What were Sanders' true motives? Coaches and scouts don't know, but as far as headaches go, Sanders is three-for-three with star draft prospects in the past 12 months. When an NFL scout who has researched Devine is asked whether the player's character should be a concern, he cites only Devine's choice of mentor: "If his relationship with Deion is a problem, then it'll drop him."
The scout has no specifics to share. It's just that he's been around and seen too much to allow himself to believe that something like this can be pure.
As much as he enjoys being a mentor, Sanders also loves being a connector, solving problems by bringing people together. On a fall afternoon, he's sitting in a banged-up community center in Fort Worth, listening to the directors' ideas about after-school programs to keep kids off the streets. They need better facilities, for one. And maybe a big name to create buzz. Sanders doesn't take notes; he simply nods. He says he's on it and mentions possibly involving his old friend Tom Leppert, the Dallas mayor. Afterward, sitting in his van, Sanders is pleased. "I can put on a suit and go meet with the mayor, or I can wear this" -- sweats -- "and go to the hood," he says. "How many people have that type of versatility?"
The problem, of course, is that a lot of people don't think his versatility comes for free. Not from a man who once recorded a rap song called "Must Be the Money," and who launched Deion Sanders Hot Dog Express, and who starred in the short-lived reality show Deion and Pilar Sanders: Prime Time Love. Before last season, the NCAA began an investigation into Sanders' relationship with Dez Bryant. The two had met in January 2009 through Michael Crabtree, a mutual friend. At the South Dallas Cafe, Bryant cried as he talked about his tough upbringing. Sanders hugged him, and they parted ways. The morning texts started the next day and have arrived every day since then.
When Bryant returned to Oklahoma State, he started asking his coaches questions about agents and his pro career -- the kind of questions the sophomore had never asked before. His coaches wondered, Why now? Was Sanders helping Bryant out of kindness? Or was he steering a first-round talent to his friend, agent Eugene Parker?
Suspecting the worst, OSU receivers coach Gunter Brewer and then-compliance director Scott Williams ordered Bryant to limit his interactions with Sanders to texts and phone calls. Bryant agreed, but there was still cause for concern; he was notoriously unreliable, and getting him to focus on even simple tasks like attending class was a daily struggle.
OSU officials say they tried to set up a conference call with Sanders, hoping to guard against any rules violations, but they never connected -- although they did exchange several text messages with him. Over the summer, Williams got the call he feared, when the NCAA asked to interview Bryant. On July 24, the wideout answered questions about Sanders and Parker for two hours. Bryant told investigators the same thing he says now: "Deion never talked about Parker."
The NCAA didn't buy it. Bryant was interviewed again in August and once more in September. "I answered all the questions the best way I could," he says. "But they'd say, 'I'm going to ask you one more time' ... making me think I'd done something wrong." So Bryant lied about visiting Sanders at Prime U and dining at his mansion. Neither of those things was a violation. The trouble came when the NCAA interviewed Sanders, who repeatedly denied being a runner for Parker but who also told the investigators that he had hosted Bryant at his house. Bryant's lie -- not anything Sanders did -- ultimately resulted in a suspension that caused the receiver to miss all but the first three games of the 2009 season. "I don't feel like Dez's suspension was Deion's fault," Williams says, adding that Sanders was "extremely cooperative and open" throughout the process.
The NCAA has closed its investigation, but suspicion lingers, especially after Bryant, the top-rated receiver heading into April's NFL draft, signed with Parker in January. "Why does Sanders want to mentor only the star players?" asks a college assistant coach. "I've got a backup guard who could use guidance. It can't all be innocent."
Then again, Parker represents only a few of Sanders' Kids. The agent didn't need Sanders to land star clients like Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald and Packers counterpart Greg Jennings, guys who barely know Sanders. "It doesn't make sense for him to recruit guys to an agent," says Hegamin, a friend of Sanders' since 1995. "He doesn't need anything. He doesn't ask anyone for anything. He doesn't need to work for anybody."
Sanders can only shake his head and laugh as he says, "Being accused of working for an agent? You've got to be kidding me!" He rolls his eyes when he hears Colt McCoy, the former Texas quarterback, talk about working at the Manning family camp and texting Peyton and Eli all the time. The NCAA doesn't investigate those relationships, Sanders points out. Yes, he admits that if a player asks for advice while picking an agent, he happily vouches for Parker -- even if that endorsement is a gotcha moment in the eyes of his critics. But should it be? Is it wrong for an adviser to recommend a trusted friend and successful professional? After all, the NCAA and the NFL Players Association do zero to protect a player who gets swindled by a bad agent. In any other field, Sanders' advice would be seen as a matter of course. In sports, it's seen as another reason to shake your disbelieving head.
Now what is he doing? That's what NFL folks wondered when Sanders inserted himself into Crabtree's contract dispute with the 49ers last year. The two had known each other since Crabtree showed up at Prime U as a high school senior. Sanders became an adviser after Crabtree, a two-time winner of the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best receiver, left Texas Tech. Once considered a top-five draft pick, Crabtree fell to San Francisco at No. 10 because of a broken foot. He and his agent, Parker, quickly made it clear they still wanted top-five money.
Crabtree's stance seemed foolish and lacking leverage, but Sanders spent considerable airtime supporting the Crabtree camp, perpetuating the belief that he himself was a member of the camp. And yet when NFL Network producers asked Sanders to arrange an exclusive interview with Crabtree -- after Goodell had warned Sanders about conflicts of interest -- Prime Time said no. "If you're a black man in America talking about money," he says, "you don't win."
SANDERS ROLLS HIS EYES WHEN COLT MCCOY TALKS ABOUT WORKING AT THE MANNING FAMILY CAMP -- THE NCAA DOESN'T INVESTIGATE THOSE RELATIONSHIPS.
Outside observers are quick to say that Sanders has given bad advice to Crabtree, Devine and Bryant. But in fact, the three players largely ignored it. Devine went back to Florida. Bryant stood up Sanders so many times early on that Deion texted Brewer to say, "Im done w him." And according to Crabtree, Sanders "didn't say much" about his contract issues, just to keep his nose in his playbook and stay in shape. "I don't let people make decisions for me," Crabtree says.
The sad truth about Sanders' mentoring is that his influence is often overestimated -- not least of all by Sanders himself. Sure, he's admired and respected; players feel flattered that Prime Time has taken an interest in their lives. But he's often more uncle than father figure. "His heart is in the right place," says one NFL GM. "But he likes to get with the stars, who don't need his advice much."
So why do all this? If the jocks barely listen and the public won't hear anything but the bad, why bother? Sanders says mentoring is his calling, but maybe he needs his guys more than they need him. Maybe he sends those morning text messages for the same reason that Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green recently ran a 40-yard dash to celebrate his 50th birthday, or that Michael Jordan talks about unretiring for his 50th, or that former PGA members show up at Q-School every year.
Maybe he simply still wants to matter.
A boy fumbles. It's the fourth quarter of a game that Sanders' youth team leads 38-12. So far, it's been a good afternoon, with Deion cajoling his players, hugging them after big plays, giving them hope. But then Shedeur, Sanders' youngest son, coughs it up on a sweep. As the boy walks to the sideline, Sanders gets in his face. "I give you the ball, and you fumble?" he says. He crouches to make eye contact, then explodes backward in disgust. "Are you crying? You're crying!"
Sanders doesn't coach criers. Cry on the field, you cry in life, he believes. Shedeur tries to walk away, but his father grabs him and pulls off his helmet. Face the crowd, he insists, so everyone sees those wet cheeks. The boy is humiliated, his teammates are scared, and other parents nervously watch. Is this discipline and structure, in the form of tough love? Or is this a well-intentioned coach with poor methods?
Sanders looks at his son and shakes his head. "Go back to your mama."
The boy walks off, leaving everyone to wonder.
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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